Forum held in Niles to discuss migrant workers getting driver’s licenses

NOW: Forum held in Niles to discuss migrant workers getting driver’s licenses


NILES, Mich. -- Should undocumented migrant workers in Michigan be able to get a driver’s license? That was the topic of a forum held by the League of Women’s Voters of Berrien and Cass counties on Wednesday.

“It should not get confused with the rest of the immigration debate,” said Michigan State Representative Dave Pagel, “because it’s really not about citizenship.”

Pagel, a Republican who represents Michigan’s 78th District and lives in Berrien Springs, phoned in to the forum from Lansing on Wednesday to discuss two bills he has introduced that would allow undocumented workers in the mitten state to get a license or an identification card.

Up until 2008, Michigan allowed it.

“The word has spread that Michigan is anti-immigrant, anti-driver’s license for immigrants,” said Theresa Hendricks, the executive director of Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids.

Berrien County farmer Fred Leitz said the current situation makes it difficult for both him and his migrant workers.

“Because they can’t get a license, they can’t drive my vehicles,” Leitz said. “So it hurts them because they have no more room for advancement in our organization, number one. And number two, I can’t put anybody in a vehicle without a license.”

Paul Bailey, the sheriff of Berrien County, agreed something has to be done to make it easier for migrant workers in Michigan, but he did have some reservations.

“I have some concerns that those people that are not citizens of the United States would be picked to come serve on a jury,” Bailey said.

Juries are selected by driver’s license in Michigan, but state law states you have to be a U.S. citizen to actually sit on one.

“The immigration population, particularly the undocumented population, is extremely vulnerable,” said Michael Braun, who attended Wednesday’s event.

Some of the three dozen attendees expressed support for the two bills.

Elizabeth Berruecos-Reed came to the U.S. from Mexico to study at Notre Dame several years ago and met her husband here.

She never was a migrant worker, but she knows some and said she understands the fears they face trying to get around without a license.

“I think that it would be terrifying for me to go drop off my kid, or be on the way, not knowing if I will be able to be back and pick her up,” she said.

Members of the local League of Women’s Voters decided on Wednesday to support Pagel’s bills.

They’ll be sending that message to the statewide organization.

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